WHERE’S LA GOING TO LIVE? The Los Angeles Housing Department(LAHD) has a new and expanded mission as the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCIDLA): To invest in neighborhoods — not just housing — with a focus on neighborhoods along the city’s rapidly expanding public transportation system. The integration of LAHD and the Community Development Department was announced last month.
HCIDLA General Manager Mercedes Márquez brings considerable resources to these neighborhoods from a suite of federal entitlement allocations: Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), HOME, HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS) and Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) for homeless services. She brings additional resources from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, a re-tooled New Generation Fund, and the housing assets of the former Community Redevelopment Agency — which HCIDLA inherited, boosting the value of its real estate portfolio from $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion.
Last but not least she also brings the city’s very own allotment of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs) — which means that for the first time the city’s projects no longer have to compete with the county for LIHTCs.
There is significantly less funding for affordable housing than there was before the recession reduced resources at all levels of government, and before California cities lost their redevelopment authority.
HCIDLA’s planning responsibility has been met lately with an annual reduction in allocations: Entitlement program funding levels in 2008 (including ESG) totaled nearly $124 million, but the aggregate amount had fallen to $89 million when the 2013 allocation was calculated.
But the fact that funding is constrained means it’s even more important to be strategic and target neighborhoods near transit where HCIDLA can leverage its funding: HCIDLA estimates the city leverages $3 for every CDBG dollar invested, for example, and $4 for every HOME dollar — which means the ConPlan represents a half-billion-dollar investment — money that can be further leveraged with Measure R sales tax funding, the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program and U.S. DOT’s TIGER program and TIFIA loan program, which are funding new transit lines and another 42 rail stations in the city, increasing the number of stations to 113.
HCIDLA’s funding programs are integrated through LA’s Consolidated Plan (ConPlan) — a HUD-mandated document that identifies a city’s housing and community development priorities. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has praised LA’s plan for the focus on neighborhoods near transit, saying the plan is a “multifaceted approach to build healthy communities by integrating community, economic, and housing development investments with transit opportunities to increase their positive impact on neighborhoods.”
LA’s ConPlan is the first in the nation to be transit-oriented, and the half-billion-dollar investment it represents portended a commanding role for Márquez as a player in former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Transit Corridors Cabinet, which consisted of eight city departments that were making “transit orientation” their policy and funding priority. Eric Garcetti convincingly committed to the cabinet during his campaign for mayor, but it’s been unclear in the early days of his administration whether he will continue the cabinet as is or whether there will be a new configuration and role.
Márquez is uniquely qualified to administer the ConPlan, having been responsible for administering all of these programs for the Obama Administration as HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development. While at HUD she also redesigned the consolidated planning process, providing a powerful mapping tool and planning database that allows cities to make data-driven decisions about investments, and an electronic template so that cities no longer have to file their plans on paper — improvements that also add transparency to the decision-making process.
Márquez says she went to Washington, DC as a “housing developer” but came back home as a “neighborhood developer” who believes the interplay of policy and investment has the most power to leverage change: Economic development policy and investment should be supported with programs that address homelessness, for example, and the Neighborhood Stabilization Program — which rehabilitates foreclosed and abandoned properties to prevent the decline of neighborhoods — should be paired with investments in community services and improvements such as workforce training and parks.
She adds that in Los Angeles the development of affordable housing has always been about economic development, since so many of the city’s challenges — from the problem of homelessness to the severity of the real estate recession — are tied to the problem of housing affordability. “To the degree that we are able to put more income into the pockets of our residents — transit, walking and biking can help us do that by reducing transportation costs and providing connections to good jobs — the less money we will need to subsidize housing.”
Targeting the HCIDLA investment to neighborhoods near transit also makes sense because this is where many low- and moderate-income people already live — in older apartment buildings and homes where rents are more affordable because they are covered by the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, or because they are government-subsidized and/or income-restricted and covered by Section 8 or other contracts between the government and property owners.
Many of these contracts are set to expire in the next five years. A study for HCIDLA completed by the national non-profit Reconnecting America last year concluded that preservation of existing affordable housing near transit lines is critical because the construction of so much transit in these neighborhoods could activate the real estate market — because the expanded rail system will connect to so many more destinations and make these neighborhoods especially desirable.
Greater demand could drive up rents and housing prices and displace the low-income residents who already live there and use transit the most. The study found, for example, that 75 percent of those who commute to jobs by transit make less than $25,000 a year.
The targeting of resources through the ConPlan will help address this problem. As the city’s housing and community development expert, Márquez works directly with the mayor to figure out how HCIDLA’s functions, mandates and responsibilities dovetail with the mayor’s citywide vision. She also advises individual councilmembers on the local impacts and opportunities of housing and community development efforts in their districts, providing them with data-driven analysis as well as expertise.
Márquez notes the Housing Department began prioritizing the production and preservation of affordable housing within a half-mile radius of transit back in 2007, which helped the city compete for $1 million from the MacArthur Foundation for housing preservation. A subsequent analysis found that 44 percent of stations in the city either had preservation or affordable housing construction projects underway along all seven Metro rail lines.
Márquez is convinced that transit is this city’s future. She believes that neighborhoods have been cut apart by the freeway system and too many wide streets filled with fast-moving traffic, endangering both the health and the prosperity of the people who live in them.
She also believes that investments in transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure can knit neighborhoods and local economies back together in a way that — along with investments outlined in the ConPlan — will bring opportunity back to neighborhood residents.
(Gloria Ohland is Policy and Communications Director of Move LA … a nonprofit organization that has helped build a broad constituency to advocate for development of a comprehensive, diverse, robust, clean, and financially sound public transportation system for Los Angeles County, and has championed strategies to accelerate its implementation.)
Vol 11 Issue 65
Pub: Aug 13, 2013